Sermon for Easter 7 2020

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We find ourselves in a peculiar transitional period right now, what a religious anthropologist might call a “liminal space”– that threshold period between an old reality and a new one, which may be full of hope but which can also create some disorientation and confusion. We are sharing this experience of liminality not only in the larger culture but within the church. We are starting the slow process of emerging from lockdown into a slow, deliberate reëntry into a new phase of our parish’s common life, just as many of you are experiencing a slow, deliberate reëntry into a world with hair salons and restaurants and the like.

And both of these transition periods are or will be very strange, disorienting, perhaps disconcerting. I’ve not yet been to a restaurant or barber (I may not for some time), but I can report that setting up an appointment to be the only customer in Best Buy, shepherded through the store by my own personal “Geek” was a somewhat surreal experience.

It will be even more strange when we take our first, tentative steps toward the resumption of public worship in this space. The space will look different, for one thing- it may strike some of us as too sterile. Some pews will have to be roped off, the prayerbooks and hymnals will have to be removed, there will be stations set up for bulletins and offering plates and sanitizer and extra masks, and your view of the altar will be partially obscured by a tripod for livestreaming (which I would encourage you to try to think of not merely as an electronic gadget in your field of vision, but as your fellow parishioners who will have chosen to continue joining us virtually for the time being). We will not see everybody we are accustomed to seeing, both because many will choose to remain at home and because we may need to have more services spread out throughout a Sunday. This is both keep our numbers at any one liturgy low enough to be in compliance with social-distancing requirements and to ensure adequate sanitation between those liturgies. We will not be able to see each other’s faces fully, as the diocesan guidelines require masks. We will not be able to share the sign of peace in the robust way to which this parish is accustomed. We may be able to catch up to some degree in the churchyard before or after church on sunny days, but we’ll not be permitted to sit down share a cup of coffee and have a proper chat in the parish hall. We will not be able to sing together, though some have suggested that were a familiar piece to come up during the Offertory, humming may be acceptable (we’ll see; the bishop suggested in a meeting I had with him last week that hearing familiar tunes to which we weren’t able to properly sing could be more painful than comforting, and I can see his point).

Most painful of all, while we will be permitted to gather we will be forbidden during this first, liminal phase from receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The determination made by those who crafted the diocesan guidelines, which many of you have read, is that there is simply no sufficiently safe safe way to administer Communion (even in one kind) at this time. You and I may disagree with that determination. It is, however, the bishop’s godly counsel, and I am bound by the oath of obedience I made over a decade ago to follow it.

Nevertheless, it is a great sadness. No doubt there will be some (perhaps many) who would otherwise have returned when public worship resumes who will not, because being in the church, beholding the sacrifice of the altar, and being unable to receive the Very Body of Christ sacramentally will simply be too painful. I get that. Nonetheless, I believe there is also something objectively salutary about attending to the worship of God in person (however painful or disappointing it may be) that transcends anything we may or may not “get out of it.”

There are two things I’d like to ask all of you to consider as we enter this new phase. First, consider how this time may be analogous to the time in which the apostles found themselves during this time we (luckily or perhaps providentially) find ourselves in during the church year. We are in this ten-day period between Christ’s ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. They, too, were in a liminal space.

Consider this morning’s reading from Acts. Jesus has ascended and the apostles and the Blessed Virgin go to the upper room and devote themselves to prayer. No doubt they were disoriented; perhaps they were confused. Now here’s the real confusing part! Those who joined us online for the Ascension Day mass heard the very end of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles (all eleven of them) leave glorifying God and spend their time praising him in the temple. Luke wrote that. We just heard the first several verses of Acts excepting its preface. Here the Apostles (all eleven of them; Luke makes certain to list them by name) go not to the temple but to the upper room to join Jesus’ mother and kinsmen and pray there, alone.

Is Luke simply contradicting himself? Had he forgotten between writing volume one and volume two of his account how it had actually gone down? I don’t think so. I think maybe some of the apostles were struck by how wondrously they beheld the glorification of their Lord and could not but praise him in the temple and other apostles were struck more keenly by the fact that Jesus was now, once again, taken away from them. Perhaps at different moments during this ten-day period any individual apostle may have felt more joy or more loss, more consolation or more desolation. Perhaps Peter and John and James and the Blessed Virgin weren’t quite as prepared to be quite a cheerful about this as the remaining eight apostles, so maybe they spent more time in the upper room while the others spent more time in the temple. Who knows? I suspect, though, that they are all listed together in both Luke and Acts because whatever their individual, personal feelings, they were nevertheless all of one accord where it really mattered. They all knew that for the sake of the church which was to be born on Pentecost they must do all in their power to stay focused on worshiping God, however that might have looked, and praying–wherever they might have been during that confusing liminal time–that the Paraclete would send them out in power for the sake of the Gospel when the appointed time had come.

So it will be during our own liminal time which, God willing, may start for us as soon as June 7th. Some will come to the temple to glorify God as best they can under new, strange circumstances. Others will stay in the upper room for some time. Some will come to the building on a Sunday and others will continue to join us via livestream. Perhaps the Comforter has not yet descended and alighted upon us, but we continue to pray for that in whatever way we best can.

And that leads to the other point for your consideration, which is beautifully summed up in our Lord’s final prayer with his apostles before the crucifixion, a portion of which we heard just a few minutes ago: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus follows four chapters in John’s Gospel of what has been called his “farewell discourse” with what is called his “high priestly prayer”: a chapter-long request that his father would keep his disciples and all Christians who would come after united in his love. The very last thing Jesus prayed for before his Passion, after three long years of ministry, was that believers would maintain the bond of peace, love, and unity no matter what the power of evil might throw at them. This was not just because being nice is nice or because warm fluffy feelings are the most important thing in the world.

It was and is because the only way believers can live out their faith and help draw other people to the Lord Jesus is by showing a world so often defined by division and chauvinism and partisanship and a host of evils that keep us from loving each other that there is another way. There is, I believe, one and only one other way. That way is to find in the love shared between the God the Father and his Only-Begotten Son the kind of love that can hold us together in spite of everything that militates against our unity. The salvation of our souls is dependent on this, and so is the salvation of the whole world.

And what is the practical implication of this truth in this time? I think it is this. There will be some who come back to the church building, we hope on June 7–God and our cleaning supply distributor willing–, and there will be many more who do not. We cannot, cannot, allow ourselves to judge a brother or sister based on what decision he or she makes in this regard. We cannot, cannot, permit ourselves to assume the one who stays home is unduly fearful or faithless nor can we permit ourselves to assume the one who comes is simply ill-informed or reckless. We cannot, cannot permit our absence or presence to be simply a political statement we use to shame a fellow-member of the body. We must bear with one another and love one another all the more, whatever they decide is most appropriate for themselves, trusting that they came to that decision in a spirit of prayer and goodwill.

Now is neither the time for judgment nor for self-congratulatory virtue signaling. Now is the time for forbearance and patience and respect and the kind of Christian love that makes all those possible. We are entering a liminal phase–an extended Ascensiontide in the midst of pandemic–and we do not know how long this period will be. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” said Jesus to the apostles in response to a similar concern in this morning’s reading from Acts. However long it lasts, though, we must spend it praying and working together for peace, unity, and concord within the Body of Christ. These are the virtues of the Kingdom of Heaven which we can, I am convinced, begin to cultivate within and among ourselves in this life in assurance of the life of the world to come.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 6 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It will be no surprise to you that I’ve never been of the opinion that all religions were just paths up the same mountain, because I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is not only the fullest expression we’ve ever seen of godliness, but that he was and is none other than God (full stop). But Paul’s sermon to the Athenians strikes me as providing an important caveat to this view.

“Men of Athens,” he says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Of course, he could be speaking ironically, and no doubt “religious” meant something very different in Greek- and in English before the nineteenth century, for that matter. Specifically, the definition of “religion” had to do with one’s practice of piety rather than any particular set of doctrines and practices which constitute distinct faiths; this is, I believe, an important distinction.

But then Paul uses several Greek words which should give us pause. They’re all translated imprecisely in our English versions, a testament to the fact that the act of translation is always an act of interpretation. “[I] looked carefully the objects of your worship” the NRSV says, but in Greek it’s “I beheld your σεβεσματα” that is “devotions”. The NRSV says “what therefore you worship as unknown”, in Greek is “what ignorantly you ευσεβειτε” or “are being devout to”. While the NRSV gives a weak translation “served by human hands”, the Greek uses a word with stronger religious significance: “θεραπευται” meaning something like “attending to”.

Devotion and attendance. These are the actions of sincere worship. This is the language that would have been used for priests of God’s temple in Jerusalem, and they are still used (if, sadly, less often) to describe what we do in church. They are words implying a response of love and commitment and genuine conviction. I try, sometimes, to model a language of worship. It is not preciousness but precision; not meaningless grandiloquence (I hope) but appropriate care for that which is, I believe, sacred. So, we don’t just put on a church service, but we devote ourselves to prayer. We don’t just “serve Communion,” but we attend to the holy sacrifice.

Now the problem with the Athenians was that their love and commitment and conviction (their devotion and attendance) was misplaced. They were devoted to objects unworthy of devotion; they attended to pagan idols rather than to the ministrations offered to the God of Israel. They are not being let off the hook. Nonetheless, Paul’s language acknowledges what might be fairly called sincere religion. We can see in the Athenians this nascent desire to reach out to what is greater and truer than their pedestrian lives. In other words, they have an inherent disposition to religion, and it’s more a matter of directing that devotion and attendance to its rightful recipient. Paul even goes so far as to suggest that some have felt inklings of this truth before having heard the Christian Gospel: “Even some of your poets have said, ‘For we indeed are his offspring.’”

The new critics of religious studies with whom I became enamored as an undergraduate suggested that “religion” was not a category into which we could place the various paganisms outside Christendom, and this was the rather extreme position I held for some time in my more callow youth. What Paul suggests is quite the opposite. The seeds of faith, of true religion, may well be innate. It gets to what that good Anglican priest John Wesley called prevenient grace. We are disposed to worship the one true God and to worship Him rightly; we just need to be told about the Way.

This is good news for we who are called to labor in the fields of the Lord. The fields are more ready for harvest than we might have imagined, because God has given all His children a keen disposition to seek Him out even before they know his name. When we, like Saint Paul, share the hope that is in us, when we point to the statue of the unnamed god and say “I know his name, it is the blessed name of Jesus, which has been exalted over every name”, then we may well be surprised to find an audience open to that very possibility. We may well find an audience that has been eagerly waiting for that Good News without even having realized it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 5 2020 by Dcn. Brian Bechtel

Last Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday, and if you tuned in for the sermon last week, you may recall that I ended in on a bit of an unusual note.  Our text last week was not calling us to any particular action, or to change our lives in any particular way, but to seek the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who loves us, and who calls us home.  There are times in our lives when we are called simply to contemplate God’s love for us; to spend time in prayer, silence, and holy reading.  We know that Jesus began his ministry by journeying into the wilderness to engage in a personal spiritual quest, and to do inner battle with Satan.  But prayer alone, without any engagement with the world can become navel gazing, or ritualism.  Prayer and contemplation alone, without engagement with the world God created and loves, prayer without any attempt to love one’s neighbor more fully, prayer untethered to community would be prayer to some God other than the Holy Trinity.  Last week our lectionary allowed us to take time, that time that is so necessary for each of us, to reflect and draw close to the Heart of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, not for any other purpose, but as an end in itself.  This week we have the follow up, the “so what,” the life example of a life changed on account of becoming a disciple of Jesus.  So today we’re going to take a look at St. Stephen, an example of someone who’s heart was on fire with the love of God – but first, a little background and context.

            In our text from the book of Acts today, we heard about St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons ordained by the apostles, and the first Christian martyr.  We don’t know much of the details of his life prior to becoming a deacon.  We only know that the apostles deemed him “a man of good standing, full of the spirit of wisdom.”  Now the reason the apostles commissioned deacons was because there was a dispute in the Christian community.  The early Christians shared possessions and took care of each other.  Widows were especially vulnerable and without much societal protection in those days, and so if you were a widow in the Church, the other members of the faithful would make sure you had food and what you needed to get by.  But the Greek Christians, the Hellenists, complained that their widows were being neglected, and that all the best food was going to the widows of the Jewish Christians.  (Remember that this was at a time when Christians still worshipped in the synagogues).  The apostles needed to dedicate themselves to prayer, preaching, teaching, and spreading the Good News of the Gospel.  And that is why deacons, including Stephen, were commissioned!

            All Christians are called to participate in the mission of the Church; which is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.  But different people have are called to different roles.  The apostles cared very much about the food disputes, and they wanted to make sure all the widows and everyone who was in need in their community had their needs met.  But they knew that they had a more particular vocation, one given to them by the risen Christ and by the Holy Spirit.  They understood that God had given them the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, teaching, leading the newly formed Christian community, and interceding on their behalf in prayer.  They found other people, people with particular gifts, to carry out the task of helping to distribute alms, and making sure that needs of the poorest were met.  There is no opposition between them; they are two sides of the same coin.  Prayer, teaching, and preaching on the one hand, service, justice, and fellowship on the other.  Each of us will have a time when we are called to participate in both of these aspects of Christian discipleship.  But, as we see in this reading from Acts, there are people who, from the earliest days of the church, have been called by God, and affirmed by the people in their call to a particular vocation within the church.  Stephen, as a deacon, was raised up for the role of service.  If all Christians are the servants of God, then deacons are the servants of the servants of God!

            Now I have spoken before about the “both/and” nature of our Christian scriptures.  That, in many cases, they are both, A, grounded in a historical reality, and B, they have symbolic meanings.  This applies here in this case too.  I believe that Jesus really lived and walked the earth, and they his apostles were real people, and that they did, really and truly lay their hands on the seven deacons and commission them to serve the needs of those most in need in their communities.  At the same time, the story of St. Stephen is written in a way that we could put ourselves in his shoes.  By leaving the details about his life blank, and only telling us that he was of good repute and full of the spirit of wisdom, Luke is encouraging us to see our own potential when we read this story of Stephen.

            We are all called to imitate Christ, but that is admittedly a rather tall order.  In order to help each of us, and to inspire each of us, the Church has raised up for us in every age saints, those people whose life and witness are especially Christlike.  And Luke, who is the author of the book of acts, writes the story of Stephen in a way to make the parallels to Christ readily apparent.  Jesus did performed miracles and signs.  St. Stephen also did great signs and wonders among the people.  Jesus was falsely accused by the religious authorities and put in trial, and so was St. Stephen.  Jesus was condemned to death, and so was St. Stephen.  Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who crucified him, and likewise St. Stephen asked that God not hold their sin against them. 

            Of the few details that we do know about Stephen, he is Christlike in every way.  Stephen is perhaps the first one to fulfill the line that Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel text, that His followers will do even greater works than He will, because he is going to His Father.  I remember as a younger person always thinking that was such an odd passage.  Jesus is truly God and truly human.  How could something that a regular person does be greater than something that Jesus does?  Now of course it’s important to keep in mind that Jesus was saying this before his death and resurrection, so he was not saying that his followers will do something greater than this central act in the drama of salvation history.  But in regard to healings or other deeds of power that his disciples had witnessed at the time, Jesus was saying that even his followers will do more than that. 

            So there are definitely times when the lectionary’s choices of readings don’t make the most sense, or other passages might fit better for the theme they are trying to lay out.  But putting this passage of the stoning of Stephen, deacon and first martyr, directly after Good Shepherd Sunday make so much sense to me.  After a week of contemplating God’s love without any call to action, we are given a lesson of a deacon, the one who’s role it is to dismiss the faithful from the liturgy, to return to the world and to serve the world in God’s name.  Last week’s sermon was missing deliberately missing a “so what.”  Last week was about leaning into do God’s tender love and mercy.  We sought to hear the voice of or Shepherd.  But just as Jesus could not stay in the wilderness forever, neither can we be drawn to the heart of God in prayer and not be moved to love and service for one another.  Stephen is the “so what.”  Stephen is someone who knew God’s love for him, and had a pure love for God.  That is why he served.  He served the least of these as Christ commanded, and he spoke of God’s revelation and intervention in the events of the world, even when his recounting of God’s action would be met with derision. 

            We are all blessed to live in a time when we can share our faith without fear of being tortured or put to death.  But even though our context is radically different, I believe Stephen is still an example for all Christians today.  Stephen shows us that regular, ordinary human people can do the deeds of Christ.  Stephen shows us that a heart on fire for God is fertile ground for a life of service that inspires others to the same.  Stephen shows us that devout prayer and selfless service in the world are two sides of the same coin.  And finally, Stephen shows us that no matter what is happening in our lives, or who may have turned against us in this momentary blip of time that is our human lifespan, there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.